For this post, I interviewed Mike Finch, Head Coach of W. Ross MacDonald Swimming in Brantford, Ontario. Mike is also one of the top technical and sprint coaches in Canada.
The following is a summary of our wide-ranging discussion.
Return to Swimming
While we’re aware that the swimming community is eager to get back to training, to say the least, there are some key issues that need to be addressed first.
First, we simply can’t get together to train until it’s extremely safe. At the very least, that will mean frequent accurate testing of the team, parents, siblings, coaches, etc. But even that’s not enough. Most of our facilities are public, and the above testing alone is no guarantee that other patrons aren’t spreading the virus.
The best solution is a fully tested and fully distributed vaccine. But reports generally indicate that will be up to a year away. Reality suggests that societal pressures will have the population out and recreating well before then.
In order to control our desire for normalcy, many municipalities and local provinces/states are deciding for us when facilities can be re-opened. These dates tend to be around the end of May or June, with the option of further extensions if necessary. However, it’s difficult to imagine they will be extended long enough to allow the required vaccine. And any resumption of community activities before then have some risk attached.
There’s also insurance to worry about. No business can proceed without their insurance signing off, and swim teams are no different. So far, many insurance companies have rejected claims by businesses based who have Business Interruption Insurance policies on the basis that this was an Act of God, or Force Majeur. Which suggests that before we can get in the water, we have wait for our insurance policies to address the risks and payoffs associated with coronavirus.
In summary, we would both be thrilled but worried to be swimming by the beginning of September.
Impact on Finances
We both agreed that teams, groups and clubs of all kinds may face some real financial struggles going forward.
The biggest problem may be the finances of its members. By early April there have been 15 million newly unemployed claims in the US, and most likely over 1 million in Canada. Many families will be struggling to pay rent/mortgages, food, heating/cooling, etc. No matter how important we think swimming is, it doesn’t rise to the level of these necessities.
Municipalities may also want to raise pool rental rates if fewer people or organizations are using public facilities. This is something we’ll have to fight, as teams won’t have the same resources as last year.
Initially, swim meets (see below) will be scarce, if not cancelled completely. This can have an enormous impact on larger teams who often critically depend on the funds from these meets. Hosting a single mega-meet can often pay the annual salary for one coach. Without these meets, we may see significant downward pressure on coaches’ salaries, if not an outright reduction in the number of coaches.
In addition, governments of every level may be forced to cut sports and athlete grants as they focus on the economy. Drops in team sponsorships may also occur as many sponsors will be concerned about survival.
Fundamentally, swimming, and every other extracurricular activity, will need to demonstrate why we deserve to exist in this new landscape. And it can’t just be because we can provide international and Olympic medals. If so, then the vast majority of teams would have to fold. Rather, we have to be able to demonstrate that the values we instill in our athletes are worthwhile going forward.
Community or Elite Swimming
With the potential of less coaching and reduced funds for pool hours, teams may need to decide on priorities. Whether to focus on elite swimming, with its requirement for significant pool time, or community-based swimming with more swimmers but less pool time. But not both.
This may mean the high-performance teams get smaller but stronger, while community-based teams get broader. This wouldn’t be a simple decision for most North American teams, as we generally think we can do both.
These pressures would have ripple effects on regional/national swimming bodies. They may be even more focused on elite swimming, as international success tends to be the source of much of their funding.
Future Swim Meets
Before the coronavirus, we held swim meets without concern for the sometimes incredibly over-crowded decks, and filled stands. Mega meets in our area usually had over 1000 swimmers, plus roughly an equal number of spectators, officials and facility staff. At the moment, imagining us jumping right back into that type of public event is scary.
The struggle will be to find a way to safely run meets until the virus has run its course. As an interim measure, we may move towards virtual meets, where each club races an identical suite of events in isolation from the other teams, and then the results are combined. If we add streaming, we could actually watch the other club’s race. And if we can develop a way of combining virtual racing and streaming, we may even be able to develop videos of the top swimmers appearing to race against each other.
Regional and province/state championships present a real challenge and real risk. Bringing people in from broad geographical areas creates the opportunity for super-spreader events.
On the plus side, we may look to pro sports to solve the problem for us. They have untold millions of fans, and a very real financial incentive to provide safe and immersive fan experiences.
The Good News
This isn’t all doom and gloom though. Coaches have far more non-pool time to work with their athletes to develop some new skills.
Resilience: Any form of adversity can lead to better focus, more patience, mental flexibility and various other attributes. And this is in keeping with David Epstein’s new book, Range, where in order to get really good at one thing, you need to be good at a lot of different things.
Mindfulness: This break is an opportunity for swimmers to develop their abilities to live in the moment, and not project ahead to a result.
Connectedness: We can develop new ways to enhance the community feeling within a team
Rest and Recovery: This is an opportunity to heal injuries, develop strength, and build a burning desire to get better. Both Mike and I have extensive experience with swimmers doing lifetime bests in as little as 2-3 months after returning to training.
This is a unique time, when life is stripped down to the basics of survival. This is a chance to focus on what really matters to us. And then when the world allows, we can drive even harder towards our goals.